The Seafarer Analysis

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The unique copy of “The Seafarer” is found in the Exeter Book, a manuscript anthology of Old English poetry assembled about 975 c.e., although many of the poems, including “The Seafarer,” may have circulated in oral versions before being written down in the form in which they now exist. The poem’s Christian message would seem to rule out any date earlier than the seventh century, when the Anglo-Saxons were converted; at the other extreme, it may have been composed, at least in the form in which it survives, around the time that the scribe copied it into the book in the second half of the tenth century. The 124-line poem is untitled in the manuscript, and its author is unknown. The best-known translation is that of Ezra Pound, whose rendering of the first ninety-nine lines has been widely admired on its own merits by readers with no knowledge of the original.

“The Seafarer,” like most Old English poetry, is characterized by textual problems, abrupt transitions, and apparent inconsistencies in tone and structure that combine to render any modern interpretation tentative and subject to revision. Earlier scholars frequently read the poem as a dialogue between an experienced sailor and a young man who has not yet been to sea, dividing the text into alternating speeches (though with little agreement as to where these speeches begin and end). More recently, the critical consensus has come around to the view that the poem is a monologue by a single speaker, a religious man who has spent a life on the sea and is now meditating on his experience of life on Earth and contemplating the afterlife in Heaven.

The poem begins with the speaker’s remembrance of the hardships of his past life on the sea, focusing especially on scenes of solitary voyages undertaken in harsh winter weather. He contrasts his lonely and difficult seafaring existence with that of the dwellers on land, who enjoy the comforts and pleasures of social life. At about line 33 of the poem, the seafarer resolves to return to the sea for another voyage, evidently to a distant land. He then shifts from personal experience to more general remarks in the third person about how seafaring men are different from landsmen, drawn more strongly to wander than to share in an admitted prosperity and the beauty of the land, especially in spring and summer. The seafarer then briefly returns to his personal thoughts about the voyage he is planning.

At about the midpoint of the poem, he explicitly makes the point that life on the land is sterile, fleeting, and insubstantial. In the second half of the poem, he moves away from the autobiographical discussion of his experiences and concentrates on the revelation to which they have led him. He develops at length the argument that worldly goods and honors are transient and insubstantial and that wise people will therefore turn their minds entirely to the eternal life in the heavenly kingdom, considering not how to enjoy themselves on Earth but how to prepare themselves for Heaven, which offers the only true home for humankind.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Without the interest of Church leaders and the patronage of West Saxon kings, modern readers would have no Old English literature to speak...

(The entire section is 989 words.)

The Seafarer

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The sailor begins with the reasons for his sorrow. His only home has been a ship constantly encountering indifferent forces, the sea and the cold. The prosperous man situated on land does not know the icy feeling of exile, the feeling of being cut off from one’s loved ones. The sailor’s joy has been the cry of sea birds instead of the laughter of men. On the sea, he says, there is no protector for men. Those on land, flushed with wine, are incapable of believing in his suffering.

Nonetheless, the sailor maintains that the heart’s desire is to venture forth on another journey. At the same time, he warns, there is no man so brave he can escape the anxiety that accompanies seafaring. His thoughts are not of music, riches, or women, but of his own longing. Not satisfaction, but dissatisfaction urges his heart and mind “over the stretch of seas.”

This yearning leads him to the “joys of the Lord,” which are not earthly. There are three things that are always uncertain until they come: illness, old age, and hostility, each of which entertains the possibility of death. Why then, he wonders, should one wish for earthly fame? One should rather seek fame among the angels.

The best days and their joys, he concludes, are gone, and weaklings have come to power. When a man dies, none of his former joys will have meaning. Thus it is foolish not to fear the Lord, but one is blessed who lives humbly--as presumably the seafarer has done. The poem ends with an exhortation to the reader to consider where his real home is and how to proceed there.

THE SEAFARER provides interest because it was obviously composed at a pivotal time when north European stoicism was giving way to Christian forbearance and hope. The poem has the feeling of both, and though the Christian feeling is uppermost, most readers remember the poem’s austere, impressionistic images of life at sea.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Old English poetry is alliterative, relying on repetition of the initial sounds of stressed syllables rather than on rhymes at the ends of lines as its structural principle. The details of this alliterative practice can be quite complicated, but the most typical form is illustrated by lines 31-32 of “The Seafarer,” which appear thus in the original Old English: “Nap niht-scua, nor an sniwde,/ hrim hrusan band, hægl feoll on eor an” (“Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,/ Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then”). Each line is divided into two half lines (separated by editorially provided commas in these examples), and the alliterating letters for each line (n and h) must occur in both halves. Each half line usually has two stressed syllables, and while either or (more often) both may alliterate in the first half line (the “a” line), in the second half line (the “b” line), the first stressed syllable must alliterate and the second must not.

While there are many threads of imagery throughout the poem, including those of cold, barrenness, and the progression of the seasons, the central metaphor is surely that of the ship at sea, which was used throughout classical and medieval literature in a variety of permutations to symbolize human life. The specifically Christian version of the image used in this poem typically identifies the waves and salinity of the sea with the uncertainty and bitterness of postlapsarian life on Earth and the sailor as the Christian tossed about by its various storms and waves. Perhaps the best-known example of this symbolic system is Noah’s ark, which was read as a parable of the power of the ship of the Church to save Christians from the floodwaters of sin. Depending upon the nuances of individual interpretation, the seafarer’s ship can thus be seen as the Church or his religious faith, which protects him from drowning in the sea of a fallen and sinful world, or as the ship of his soul journeying over temptation (and potential shipwreck at the hands of Satan) toward a heavenly destination. In such readings, the chaos represented by the sea of sin is contrasted with the stability of Heaven.

Other readers have suggested that the sea may also reflect a Christian baptismal image whereby the water represents the possibility of rebirth into faith, thus explaining the seafarer’s decision to return to the sea. The ship motif provides a number of possibilities for further elaboration; in “The Seafarer,” for example, commentators find that the sea bird in flight represents the seafarer’s soul in contemplation of God, that his night-watches represent his earlier spiritual darkness, and that the sea journey represents a religious pilgrimage. These various interpretations are not necessarily contradictory and may merely reflect the poet’s sophisticated handling of a complex symbol by developing more than one significance for it.

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

“The Seafarer” was probably first sung by a poet in the mead-halls of princes and kings, accompanied by the traditional instrument, the...

(The entire section is 312 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

600-100 BC: Although Germanic peoples were first mentioned in writing some six hundred years before the common era, they did not...

(The entire section is 3619 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Given that many people have little idea of how those of former times viewed themselves or their cultural worlds, is it indeed possible for...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

Selected Readings in Old English, read by Edward N. Irving, Jr., in 1996 for Brigham Young University’s Chaucer Studios, contains...

(The entire section is 101 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Those who are not only interested in Old English literature but also charmed by Burton Raffel’s masterful translation should pick up...

(The entire section is 227 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Davenport, W. A., “The Modern Reader and the Old English Seafarer,” in Papers on Language and Literature,...

(The entire section is 620 words.)